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Santa in a tree house: Beaverdale neighborhood goes all out


A real estate purchase agreement is generally a boring, black-and-white, contractually binding document that is typically devoid of holiday cheer. Bill and Sarah Thorn knew that buying a house was serious business. But when the Thorns were prepared to make an offer to buy a Beaverdale home in 2001, they made one jolly inclusion mandatory: the seller must leave behind the Christmas

The Beaverdale neighborhood they moved to takes holiday decorating to a new level, and the Thorns wanted to be prepared to join in right away.

The Thorns have come a long way since that first Christmas, progressively adding more décor. The home is situated in Beaverdale’s “island,” which is between Ashby Avenue and Wallace Lane, smack dab in the middle of Des Moines’ hottest neighborhood-decorating tradition and situated so that both the front and back of the home is on display.

“Last year, I bolted 16 feet of 2x4s across there,” Bill said pointing to the front of his house. “And we drove eye bolts into it. Then I stretched 16-gauge wires down and put metal rods into the ground to give myself a grid to work with. And then I had a Christmas tree woven in green LEDs in the center, and two candy canes, one on either side.”

And if it feels as though the Christmas lights are blinking in perfect rhythm to the music blaring out of your radio as you pass by, that’s because they are. Bill programs his lights to pulsate in rhythm to holiday music he rigged to play through passerby’s car radios — he posts a sign with the proper FM station to tune to.

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In the back yard, the Thorns are on their third inflatable Santa Claus. The first Santa ripped after many years. The second didn’t work properly. But this one — Helicopter Santa — is on the money. Old Saint Nick sets up shop in the treehouse that Bill built to entice his daughter to move from the family’s previous residence. She’s grown up now, which means Santa is alone. He peers over the railing, waving at oncoming traffic, which often moves by slowly, bumper to bumper.close-up-with-santa

“It’s busiest on Wednesdays and the weekends,” says Sarah.

She says it’s best to come on the weekdays, otherwise you risk traffic jams. Limousines and party buses are regulars on the route.

“They go down Wallace Lane first,” explains Bill. “And then as you get around to the point, then they’ll come back up and exit off of Ashby.”

The Thorn residence is just one house on the tour. People come to see everything the neighbors have to offer. One has a huge inflatable Christmas dragon. Another has a big white tent lit up with silhouettes of elves and Santa flitting about, dancing together inside. Two 6-foot-tall toy soldiers from the Nutcracker ballet adorn one front door.

A group of the neighbors takes turns dressing as Santa and giving candy canes at the de facto entrance. Santa isn’t always on duty, but Bill assures someone will be suited up on Christmas Eve.

Bill baked 400 cookies last year. He handed the piping hot treats to bicyclists riding by for The Beaverdale Holiday Lights Slow Roll. Riders decorated their rides and rode through, looking at the lights.

Two wheels is a great way to take in the ambiance, but if you’re brave, Sarah says the best way is to dress warm, grab a steaming cup of something and walk through the winter wonderland. Basking in the beauty of the multi-colored lights reflecting off a light snow dusting, while on foot, is an amazing sight to see, and worth risking a chilly red nose.


For some, the holiday season is the most spectacular time of the year. But it’s not so for Bill and Sarah Thorn. Instead, the Thorns say the best part of the calendar is directly after the holiday season, because it’s the time for huge discounts on holiday lights and other decorations. That’s when the smart decorators stock up.

Here are some other helpful tips from the Thorns to Christmas decorating newbies:

• Try to get set up before the first freeze.

• The key to an efficient setup is an organized teardown the year before. Buy storage tubs, reels for wrapping cords, and don’t skimp on the labeling.

• “Start simple. It’s amazing what a spotlight on a tree will do,” says Sarah. “And the new ‘star showers’ are the fastest and easiest way to suddenly look decorative.”

• Watch out for raccoons. One winter, Bill’s extension cords continued to be “snipped by teenagers or newspaper delivery boys.” He later found out it was actually a band of raccoons. Once he began leaving the wires energized, the problem subsided.

• Be aware of the neighborhood you are moving into. If it’s in Beaverdale, your neighbors will probably expect you to decorate.

• Hit the post-Christmas 50- to 75-percent-off sales to stock up for following year.

• “Don’t be bashful. We’ll steal inspiration from other decorators,” Bill laughs.

        • Using LED lights allows for many more lights without draining electricity usage. ♦



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